by Godfrey Garner
On January 21, 2012, the body of an unknown American was found in his home in Bacalar a small town in southeast Mexico. Suffering from AIDs, though known to several locals, he seemed like so many Americans living in remote areas of Mexico, to have no real identity; no real past. His body remained unclaimed for several days.
Jonathan “Jack” Idema did have a past however, and though some would brand him a charlatan at best and a sociopath at worst, few alive today could claim an approximate number of adventures compared to those experienced by Idema.
His most recent claim to fame involved a trial and conviction by an Afghan court in 2004 for torture and kidnapping. Idema served three years of the sentence in Afghanistan’s infamous Pul-e-Charkhi prison. He was released in 2007 and moved to Mexico where he died at the age of 55.
Idema, and two associates, Brett Bennett and Edward Caraballo were arrested when Afghan security forces raided their makeshift jail in a house in Kabul on July 5. They were accused of imprisonment and torture of Afghans in an attempt to elicit information relating to the locations of various high value targets. No evidence of torture was presented at the trial though Idema admitted using standard interrogation techniques on those he held, claiming his efforts were sanctioned by the United States.
During his trial by an Afghan court in Kabul, evidence claiming a dubious though not convincingly denied link to the CIA was presented in Idema’s defense. Idema testified that Afghan intelligence agents had confiscated 200 videotapes, 500 pages of documents and more than 800 photos and given them to U.S. authorities. These materials he claimed were key to his defense, verifying that he was operating with the knowledge of the U.S.
Idema’s defense offered unchallenged evidence at the trial of direct communication between Idema and high-ranking government officials during his operation in that country. The fact that the American government knew Idema was in Kabul and was obtaining clandestine information some of which the American government was receiving was fairly clearly presented and undisputed during the trial and to this day has still never been denied.
The U.S. government following 9/11 had offered rewards for the capture of multiple individuals known as High Value Targets, (HVT) terrorist fugitives. These rewards included a $50 million bounty on al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Ironically officials of the American Government at the time of the trial said they had no idea what motivated Idema but there were indications it may have been commercial.
Afghanistan and the entire Middle East, following 9/11 became a veritable, unorganized, uncoordinated “wild, wild west” for freelance intelligence operatives. Anyone with the means could travel to the region and ‘live the life’. Additionally, far too often, individuals who had legitimate business in that part of the world were co-opted by various American and allied intelligence agencies.
Though Afghanistan itself was crawling with legitimately sanctioned ‘information collectors’ it was difficult to determine who was, and who was not legitimate. The line was further blurred by acts like those of Idema. Often, these ‘unofficial’ operatives were bolstered in their efforts because the information they obtained, occasionally of value to legitimate intelligence operatives was accepted and reinforced with subtle forms of encouragement, sometimes little more than a pat on the back.
The problem was, and still is exacerbated by the sheer number of official, semi-official and unofficial brokers of information in that part of the world, not to mention the number of locals, encouraged by wealth they could never have dreamed of, all scrambling to make the deal. The result unfortunately is ‘misunderstanding’ at a level that is catastrophic for many people.
The process of training to run sources and conduct Human Intelligence (HUMINT) operations at a level commensurate with CIA operations is lengthy and is normally followed by years of apprenticeship activities before an agent is considered capable of running sources. A mistake along the way, regardless of how simple, could result in tragedy for the source, not to mention damage to the operation itself. ‘Off the book’ operations conducted by individuals who do not have the value of the training and experience can and often do, backfire.
Even one who is highly trained in intelligence operations such as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta can intentionally or unintentionally destroy someone’s life at the drop of a hat. Panetta, the CIA Director when Osama bin Laden was killed, for reasons as yet unknown, confirmed the role of Dr. Shakil Afridi in making the bin Laden assassination mission a success. Five months before Afridi’s sentencing to Pakistani prison, while the doctor was being held and interrogated by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Panetta spoke on record in an interview with CBS “60 Minutes” confirming Afridi’s role. The statements by Panetta sharply contradicted Afridi’s story, incriminating the man who had been so crucial to our mission success.
Today, the United States is once again embroiled in an international situation, involving a potential ‘contract CIA operative’ who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2007. This most recent ‘misunderstanding’ has been tragic for Bob Levinson and his family and has resulted in yet another total embarrassment for the United States.
While White House spokesman Jay Carney is adamant that Bob Levinson "was not a U.S. government employee when he went missing in Iran”, Levinson’s family attorney David McGee claims that records he found show "without a shadow of a doubt" that Levinson was a contract employee of the CIA on a rogue assignment in Iran for the agency when he disappeared, and the AP reports that, “Top U.S. officials, meanwhile, say his captors almost certainly already know about his CIA association."
Contrary to the most basic CIA rules, and common sense, a team of analysts who reportedly had no authority to conduct such an operation, paid Levinson to gather intelligence from Iran. The result; Levinson has now been in prison in Iran since 2007.
For America, the nature of the enemy has changed drastically in the past century. As recently as the Korean War our enemy was defined by borders, uniforms, structured military organizations and distinct ideals. Now our most destructive enemy as we learned on that early morning in September 2001, can be a band of non-descript individuals with box cutters. Unfortunately, with this changing nature of our enemy must logically come changes in how we fight and how we gather information.
When we plunged righteously, headlong into Afghanistan we changed a multitude of rules. We accomplished that portion of our objective and since that time, have been successful in protecting America, in part because we were willing to change the rules and rewrite the plans on the fly.
Americans were willing to trust our military and our American leadership in most matters including intelligence. As the situation changes however, the question arises, “How do you draw back?” We obviously have not defeated Al Qaeda and America still faces a multitude of undefinable enemies but even in Afghanistan, the ‘wild wild west’ has been mostly tamed.
In 2001, we went into Afghanistan offering massive rewards for information and we got results. At the time, Afghans had not yet figured out who they hated and who they loved nor had they figured out how to play the game so the confused system of money for information worked well. Our normally highly structured, highly regulated system of intelligence gathering, soon gave way to a system governed more by expediency and a demand from those in power for ‘immediate answers’, regardless of the cost. And to further complicate matters, Afghans learned how to exact revenge on old enemies and all the while, benefit monetarily using the ‘money for information’ system.
Then came the contractors and the NGOs and soon the freelancers like Idema, all with a peripheral role in the process of gathering information whether officially or simply perceived officially. Though operations in the intelligence community got slightly out of hand, the information flowed freely. And the demands placed upon legitimate intelligence gathering agencies in Afghanistan precluded them looking the proverbial ‘gift horse in the mouth’.
For this reason folks like Idema were not reined in by the CIA when it was clear they were ‘off the reservation’. Whether the American Government encouraged Idema or not, they knew he was there and had an idea what he was doing. Additionally unofficial operations like the one that contributed to the disappearance and imprisonment of Levinson were not discouraged. In short, the adult in the room declined to present himself and take charge.
In actuality, the CIA from its inception as The Office of Strategic Services during WWII has probably always used unorthodox methods to gather information, but there was a method to the madness and a semblance of effective control that seems to be missing now. Though some of this lack of oversight can be contributed to the sinister nature of our enemy today, if order is not restored in the intelligence community, more Americans misguided or not are going to find themselves in foreign prisons while we here at home in frustration, lament their situation.
Using people and throwing them away, regardless of the perceived benefit is not an American value. If Idema truly was operating totally on his own, he should have been thwarted in his operations by the first official in the American government who received the first piece of intelligence information from him. If Bob Levinson’s actions were not sanctioned by the American Government he should have been recalled by the first CIA official who ever got a pat on the back, because of information obtained from Levinson’s efforts.
“Leave no one behind,”is a sacred promise our military makes to all who serve. Our military makes that pledge on behalf of the people of America. The pledged is ostensibly extended to all who sacrifice on behalf of America.
If we as a nation received a morsel of information from Idema, we owned him. If he was wrong we should have intervened immediately. If we as a nation received a morsel of information from Bob Levinson, we owned him. If he was wrong we should have intervened immediately. Turning our backs on Americans from who’s efforts we profit is wrong regardless of who they are.
It brings nothing but shame on our country that either Jonathan Idema or Bob Levinson was allowed to continue in their efforts. The real question is, how many other Idemas or Levinsons are out there today, and what will be their fate.